Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie – on the inside with the Young Avengers

Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie are respectively the writer and artist of the hit Marvel series Young Avengers. Taking part in the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s Stripped programme, the pair were kind enough to speak to Geek Chocolate’s Stephen Sutherland and Garry Mac the morning after their talk at the festival. The following interview was conducted largely without tea.

Spoiler Warning – This interview contains plot details for Young Avengers issue 9.

Garry Mac – So we’re just going to keep it conversational instead of hitting you with a list of questions.

Kieron Gillen – We like it loose, and that’s about all you’ll get from us this morning!

GM – We’ll tailor it for your fragile nature this morning.

Stephen Sutherland – We’ll start with your initial thoughts on the Edinburgh Book Festival. How have you enjoyed it so far?

Jamie McKelvie – What we’ve seen has been amazing. It’s been really good. We haven’t seen much of it but the panel was really fantastic, the audience was good, and Graham [Virtue, Glasgow based journalist], the moderator, was really good.

KG – The Stripped part of the festival is incredibly impressive. A big wide look at what is comics in 2013.

JM – It’s been put together by someone who really knows what they’re doing, which is nice.

KG – We were signing opposite Margaret Atwood, which we didn’t know at the time. “The Canadian woman across from us with the massive queue.” I wouldn’t say that’s implied parity, but, you know.

GM – We’re going to talk mostly about Young Avengers. I think you said you’re on script fourteen or fifteen just now?

KG – Fifteen.

GM – We’re just wondering what your thoughts are on the first year, how it’s been received.

JM – That’s a big question!

KG – It’s been received well!

JM – The reviews from the start have been good, and the audience has been enthusiastic and varied, and that’s one of the things we wanted to do with the book was to appeal to lots of people and not just forty five year-old men, and the signings have totally reflected that.

SS – It feels very young, it feels like it’s not aimed at your ‘typical’ comic book audience.

JM – I mean that’s not say that other people aren’t reading it, but it’s got the spectrum.

KG – It’s a teen superhero comic and we wanted to do all of that. That’s not a very good sentence… Yes, is the answer!

GM – It feels like you’ve pitched the book at an audience that the books currently, and a lot of the editors and those running the show don’t seem to willing to admit is out there, that younger audience. An audience that is massive in fandom on television, films and things, and there isn’t a lot in comics that is pitched for them, and for everyone else to enjoy as well. Young Avengers feels like it’s really captured that. On Tumblr people go wild for it. Was that the intention, to bring in a younger market?

JM – Well we say it’s about teenagers rather than for teenagers, and those are two different things.

KG – I think the question implies more intelligence than you should give us credit for! It’s kind of like, there’s a sense of this is how we felt the book should be, and should is a dangerous word and I don’t like it, but for the sake of a creator and on a specific project, a lot of people talk about comics “should” be this or that, and what comics are missing, and we’re in a position to do something about that.

It’s funny, we get accused of pandering quite a bit; any time anything isn’t pandering to the usual crowd, it’s pandering. The comic industry is built entirely on pandering to one demographic, and if something is even slightly inclusive of people other than them, it’s suddenly offensive. Which is depressing. And we sort of knew that going in, but seeing the world fall to your estimations is depressing!

For us, we just think, “Let’s do a book that would be healthier to do.” Having all books like Young Avengers would be awful, but the point of comics being a more mature medium now is that there’s this wide range of freedom to do stuff, you know? And Young Avengers is a very non-realistic comic, it’s not the realistic mode of a teenage comic, but while basing it on these genuinely real transitional things, it’s very much the superhero as metaphor and that makes it very non-literal, and frankly. literality has been one of the major themes of superhero comics over the last year.

Some of it is, well, saying culturally radical would be overselling us, but it’s in opposition to a lot of stuff that came before. So part of it is that, and part of it is just the more inclusive idea of putting it together. It’d be really nice if comics didn’t offend enormous proportions of people on the planet, just by existing!

GM – We were thinking about the diversity as a word getting thrown around just now, and obviously it is something that has become really big in comics, and Marvel particularly seems to be taking a pretty strong stand on it by introducing all-female X-Men teams, for instance, but this book feels like it is not pandering or a response to a demand for diversity, it feels more like it’s just an attempt to include a broad team. Is it something you were aware of?

JM – We were aware of it, you have to be aware of it, but you want to do it to feel natural within the story certainly, but there were different things we had to consider. As we were saying at the panel last night, one of the reasons we didn’t include Speed was because that’s like one more straight white guy in a team where you’ve only got, like, seven people. And also because almost every other comic is straight white guys, so when you’re trying to do something different you have to consider those things.

KG – Well we can talk about this more after the next issue goes out, unless this goes out after Wednesday. Basically, the whole stuff involving Prodigy is that he is bi and we have the story behind that, and he is just into Teddy, it’s just
a romantic triangle. One of the first things I thought going onto YA was that we need more dudes who like dudes in this book. The problem with homosexual diversity is that you can go okay, let’s have one gay person in the team which is great because you can see that, but you can’t do any plots about them being gay unless you add others. So if you do that in the supporting cast, they’re not actually in the book. If you do it in the team, well suddenly you’ve got two gay characters, and that means that they can have sex, or not have sex, and that’s basically the plot. I thought, we need more gay people on this team.

For a writer who is writing stories, the ideal is that everyone on the team is bi, and that’s the maximum of possibilities, which is cheating! But once you’ve done that, I’ve ended up with three men who are into men on that team, and that immediately skewed it so there is not enough women on the team now! There’s only two women members on the team, which is an epiphenomenon of that choice.

So diversity is something we bear in mind, but it’s all about what’s the most interesting story you can do. I don’t want to say “tokenistic diversity”, but when it’s good to have a character like this… Someone on a forum recently was asking, “Why do writers always have this tendency to do mixed-race couples?” Which is true. If you look at comics there are very few people who are dating inside their race, and it’s the epiphenomena of having a limited number of people of colour on a team, so they just can’t!

And this of course is an epiphenomena of the fact that these characters were built either in the sixties at Marvel or the thirties at DC. And they of course have this social status in the universe and that’s really hard to write around. But you do what you can!

SS – Looking at the women characters, it feels like the women characters in Young Avengers are the one who seem the most together. They seem to be the most mature, while the men are running around trying to get themselves together. Was that a deliberate choice? There are so few women characters around/ I feel like Miss America is almost the leader of the team, she’s the most in control of herself, and in control of the situation.

JM – Kate was always the most sensible all the way through. Miss America’s a bit older I think.

KG – She’s not much older, she’s about seventeen or eighteen. She’s just had a lot more life experience.

JM – Yeah, she’s been on the run since she was a young teenager.

KG – She says she’s been on the run for a decade, which means since she was eight. That’s the implication of the story.

JM – So that’s why. I mean, part of the reason for bringing her in was to give the other characters an almost like a hero character for the others within the team, someone to look up to.

KG – It’s the idea of the transition between your hero figures who are very different to you versus the idea that the people you actually admire are your peers. And then when you admire your peers you go well why not me? Hero worship at a distance is, I wouldn’t say toxic or harmful because it’s useful, it’s good, you know I love my hero figures, but in terms of people growing and trying to become a hero themselves essentially, that’s a bit of a bonsai plant situation, it kind of limits you.

Kate was always the competent one.

SS – Even in Allan Heinberg’s run, she was always the competent one.

KG – She’s also slightly older so that’s important to note. She’s also, I don’t want to say impulsive, well actually, impulsive is the word. And she’s quite flirty, and you can see that over in Matt (Fraction)’s book as well.

GM – It’s not necessarily what you’d call sensible…

SS – It’s a confidence thing, isn’t’ it? She’s sure of herself.

KG – That was definitely not a gendered choice. Kate is like girls I know, anything I love about the men and women in my life, that’s very much in Kate.

GM – We’ve actually just been talking about this idea that there’s been a lot of discussion around gender in comics and there’s been some comic writers talking about the idea that as men you don’t really know women so you can’t write them and then you’ve got other people coming out and saying well, they’re just people! But also you base characters off people around you.

JM – I base everybody of people I know, to a certain extent.

KG – Yeah, you do that visually. When writing for Jamie, Jamie’s such an incredible physical actor in his characters, I write for that, and I know Jamie draws from life. You often talk about who is inspiring Miss America or whatever.

JM – Miss America’s a friend of mine, some other friends are characters. Yeah, it’s just about paying attention to the people around you. Empathy’s what it comes down to basically. Obviously you can’t always completely understand someone else’s position, but you can try to, that’s where good characters come from.

GM – It’s that kind of attempt to understand…

KG – Yeah, I mean writing is pretty much weaponised empathy, or practical empathy. Are people other than you difficult to write? Yeah sure, but you know, you’ve got to use a mixture of research and empathy and just think of people you know, you know? It’s never been a major problem for me, and I’m not sure why. I worry about it a lot you know but it’s not… I’m paraphrasing Wilde’s “all criticism is autobiography”, you know that’s something I say a lot, because a review will generally tell you more about the reviewer than the thing being discussed. Which is fine, that’s humans! But that’s true of art as well.

I don’t want to say people who can’t write women have problems with women, but that’s kind of what I’m heading towards. My logic has led me to this!

GM – It’s definitely on a spectrum, getting towards that is the extreme of things. Do you think there’s something about coming from indie first though, you know, because superhero books have really been set in stone for a long time and there is a kind of almost old-school puritanical thing about superheroes in a lot of ways, and that’s why that discussion seems to be happening in that genre rather than elsewhere. Do you think the
re’s something about coming from Phonogram, an arena in which you weren’t worried about gender, you know?

JM – I don’t know… A lot of people come from indie first. Maybe it was not so much indie but the crowd we come from.

KG – As well as a lot of our bands were…(To Jamie) Do you want to talk about our nineties bands? Like, women in bands?

JM – Yeah, I’ve talked about this before, growing and being into music I was really lucky to have a band like, say, Kenickie, to be into who took the riot grrl thing. Just from early on my heroes were men, women, you know across the board, and that’s who I learned about this things and that’s how I grew up with it. And that just moves over into what you’re doing. And I was very lucky to have that because that was almost a brief blip.

When you look at especially British music now, it’s seemed to become a lot more male-dominated again.

SS – It feels to me like there’s a lot of cultural influences in your comics, like fashion, and bringing in things like Tumblr and music. Do you think that’s an important thing for comics to do nowadays? To bring in more influences from things that just aren’t comics? Because so many comic book writers have been raised on a diet of comics books

JM – That’s what happened in nineties comic books, the artists all learned by copying other artists there wasn’t any sort of…

KG – Cultural influx…

JM – Comics are pop culture, I’ve always thought comics should be part of pop culture. People say, “Oh but it’s going date,” but it’s going to date anyway, and comics are part of the culture and they should reflect that and be part of the moment. So yeah, definitely, bring it all in.

KG – Look back at the great comics, like Eisner with the big theatre influence, it’s a massive medium and it can be anything, anything on a page it can be. You take the stuff from outside and you bring it in there. The problem was that in comics’ eighties and early nineties success meant that you could actually get a better education, okay, before the eighties you couldn’t get the frankly wanky bullshit influence stuff as easily in “mainstream” comics, and after that you could. The fact that comics now are better means it’s easier to just read comics, and actually lose some of those outside cultural influences. And so that’s almost a problem created by comics’ success, I think.

But we try to be culturally literate, because we are. You bring in everything.

KG – We code a lot into our comics, we try to imply a larger structure…

JM – Which we have to, because we’ve only got twenty two pages a month…

KG – But we’re not often as explicit about it and I think that’s where we lose some people in that we have a quite shiny surface and some people really don’t see any more of the semiotic code which is really important to what we do.

GM – I think some of that’s been lost a little bit in comics because often we are spoon-fed a lot of stuff, and that’s something I’ve noticed about YA is that it manages to kind of… Like, I hadn’t read Journey into Mystery before I read Young Avengers, and hadn’t read the previous volume, and I’m not usually an Avengers fan at all, I’m an X-Men boy [Keiron pats his chest in sympathy], but I was getting really up to speed quickly with the characters, but through their conversation, like it’s not expository, we’re actually getting more of their personality through finding out about what’s happened to them in the past, and there’s kind of repercussions and things. It does feel like that’s something we haven’t had for a while in comics, is something that does manage to fairly breezy and light but actually has depth through the characterisation.

KG – We hope so.

JM – That’s what we’re trying to do. So many comics are so grim all the time, and you do get people angry at you for making a fun comic, which is bizarre, it’s such a strange thing.

GM – It’s not realistic enough…

KG – You’re definition of realism tells you more about you, it’s like if you think Man of Steel is a realistic Superman movie you’re an idiot. I really am in a bad mood, sorry! It’s just not, I don’t care about realism…

GM – Do you have a preference in terms of the way you work, like working on a book that is potentially going to be contained within a larger event compared to Young Avengers where you are both getting the opportunity to keep it separate?

KG – Given the choice I would choose the latter. I’ve got a weird knack for writing into crossovers, which has surprised me.

JM – Like Journey Into Mystery, it was largely crossovers but was still doing its own thing.

KGJourney Into Mystery was made to be resilient, is a good way of putting it. Or corrupting. It corrupted any crossover it came into contact with, where I’m like, “No I think I’m in charge of this crossover!” Yeah, but it’s going to be the latter. Most writers if let alone to write… I want to do more semi-self-contained stuff, because I’ve done so much stuff which wasn’t self-contained, and it’s more that fact that I have done so much of it, it’s not as interesting as a technical challenge to do it again.

Therefore me on my Iron Man run, despite all the Guardian stuff happening, has been pretty self-contained. Often it’s been shaped by other events, but I haven’t really done that, I’m kind of doing my own thing. And Young Avengers is completely self-contained in its own little pocket universe.

You know the job when you take it on, I knew Uncanny would be like that, so you don’t worry as long as you know what the job is when you take it on. And if the job changes, that’s when you would get pissed off, and I’ve been lucky that that’s not really happened.

SS – You were talking about people getting annoyed when they see a ‘fun’ comic. What do you think the most fun comics are on the market just now?

KG – Ha, Crossed. For a certain value of fun… Erm…

JMHawkeye, obvious
ly. I’m enjoying a lot of Marvel Now to be honest. I just like optimism in comics and for a long while it felt like there wasn’t any. I haven’t had much time to reach much of anything to be honest at the moment. Wolverine and the X-Men is always fun. People get angry about that as well.

GM – “What is this thing?”

JM – It’s a book about a bunch of teenage mutants, it’s going to happen, you know?

KG – Aaron’s got this weird thing, when I first knew Aaron obviously it was his Vertigo crime stuff, and I just thought he was the big bad man in writing, and that was good because it meant he wasn’t doing what I was doing, and then he did Marvel stuff like Wolverine and the X-Men and I was like, “God, he can write anything, the fucker…”

Thor‘s a fun book, of course it looks epic, and it is quite dark, and the end of time and the death of Gods…

JM – It’s exciting…

KG – …it’s got Thor with two hammers, you know?! It’s like 2000AD, fun doesn’t have to be pretty, when you’ve got someone like Rick (Remender, on Uncanny X-Force) teleporting a shark inside the Blob to eat him from the inside, that’s not the most serious comic book in the world, that’s quite goofy, but it’s awesome fun, I read that and thought Rick…

GM – Yeah, it does seem that YA is coming out at a time when with Marvel Now, they’ve kind of brought a bit of that back, a bit of pop, having a bit of fun, things like Hawkeye and stuff like that. It feels like it’s a much needed change after epics that have been sort of influenced by real-life events.

KG – People talk about what the Noughties were about, for me the Noughties were the paramilitary age of superhero comics. My Uncanny X-Men, despite having stuff which was much lighter buried in there, like Sinister was incredibly goofy although quite a serious idea, that was very much a paramilitary organisation, I was wanting the credibility of how they operated, it was important to the exercise, the way they would use their powers would be logical in the situation, and I wanted that almost procedural nature to it. That’s not really Young Avengers. YA has bits of that, it’s just kind of the way I think, and as you say, it’s not even that it’s based on real events, it’s as if the superheroes were like the fire service or something like that. And YA is trying to quite self-consciously stop that. As I said, it’s less literal.

GM – It’s interesting, (Grant) Morrison was talking about that the other night…(At his Book Festival talk, coming soon to Geek Chocolate.)

SS – The superhero as soldier.

KG – Yeah, the paramilitary age. It’s funny, because so much stuff came from The Authority, the Mindless Ones who are quite smart internet bloggers, the Prismatic Age is the way they described the Noughties, which is about the analogues. I think that’s an interesting way of looking at it. And people called it the Widescreen Age. Both of these trends, The Authority. And not that The Authority invented analogues, but it’s when the age got codified, if that makes any sense.

All three, the Widescreen, the Paramilitary Age, and the Prismatic approach to the Noughties, all came from this twelve issues of…

JM – I love The Authority, but I don’t want all books to be The Authority!

KG – But they were! All books that came after, in some way…

SS – It’s a trap that comics falls into all the time, the minute something remotely different comes out everything just copies it immediately. Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, The Authority

JM – That happens in Hollywood as well. People try and recreate success, I guess.

KG – On some level I must be disappointed by Young Avengers, I think on some level I wanted it to be The Authority, and just having this idea of having this incandescent, this is another way of doing comics and everyone rips of off! And we haven’t been quite that successful. But we tried!

It’s like what Warren said, for a year we were like The Beatles, The Authority in Warren’s era was a pop band. And pop bands are good.

GM YA definitely has that feel, but it’s not like they’re the Number One pop band, they’re kind of like the band that you’re really into.

KG – We’re Robyn.

GM – Those that are into it are really into it. I prefer that to be honest.

SS – Like The Indelicates, intellectual pop.

GM – Pop you can kind of take your time over…

SS – And now and again you need a thesaurus.

KG – That’s the thing with The Authority, it was never top of the sales charts.

GM – I think it’s that the things that followed that, the events, became these massive, massive things.

KG – I loved The Authority, it was my way into superhero comics as an adult. There’s also people like Hickman, Hickman is the bigger-than-big, space opera approach, and this beautiful meticulous structure he does, but you know, I love that too!

JM – There’s room for all of it.

Further excerpts of this interview are available at Garry and Stephen’s blogs and

Special thanks to Kieron and Jamie for their time, and to Gary Gray for the photos